We’re on the (Sea) Road Again

It’s a funny feeling, setting out to sea after eight months ashore, especially in the surreal conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic. But upon selling our car, Glinda, in mid-April and getting word that sailboats could begin to move within Queensland, we were free to leave Bundaberg and return to the wind and waves. Yet even after 14,000+ miles, there’s always a knot in our stomachs on starting a new stage of our voyage. How long would it take to regain our sea legs and reestablish our routines? Were we ready for the discomforts of the weather, the homework of plotting courses, the stress of finding safe anchorages as we threaded north through the tricky waters of the Great Barrier Reef? In the end, all you can do is check and double-check your preparations, take a deep breath, and go.

Where are we going? Before Covid-19, our route would have taken us up the Great Barrier Reef to Cape York, the northern trip of Australia, and onward to Indonesia in July. That is now unlikely. Although the virus is declining in Oz, and Queensland has begun to ease social distancing restrictions, international borders remain closed. Even when they reopen, conditions in countries like Indonesia may be untenable for months to come. Then in November, the Pacific cyclone season begins, effectively ending safe cruising in those latitudes until April 2021. Our plan, therefore, is to cover the 750 miles to Cairns, the best position for resuming our circumnavigation when the situation allows, then wait and see. While it may mean staying in Oz for another year, if we must be “stuck” somewhere, believe me, we’re glad it’s here.

As for the sailing, it started well. Since it is preferable to traverse the GBR in daylight hours, we plotted a series of 20-45 mile hops between anchorages that are well protected from the predominant southeast trades. There aren’t as many of these as you might think, and when the wind drops we need to motorsail to ensure we arrive before nightfall. In addition, many of the anchorages are rolly due to the swells that wrap around the small islands and cays, and Corroboree, with her wide beam and shallow draft, is already a rolly boat. It therefore takes a bit of doing to hit all the conditions just right.

Our first stop was Lady Elliot Island, the southernmost point of the GBR and home to a low-key private resort. Visiting sailors are not allowed ashore at any time, and the resort itself was now closed. However, it was a convenient distance from Bundaberg, and the “active” anchorage offered two free public moorings, on one of which we rock-and-rolled for two nights. We hoped the chop might ease and we could explore the shoreline in the dinghy. No luck, but we did see a large manta ray glide by.

A brisk sail took us on to Lady Musgrave, and here we were rewarded. Unlike the open anchorage at Lady Elliot, Lady Musgrave offers a sheltering coral reef. Enter through the marked channel and you’re in a spacious lagoon, open to the wind but protected from the waves and swell that break outside. We floated in an oasis of sparkling sea and vivid blue sky. Normally, Lady Musgrave would be host to a flood of visitors on one of the popular dive-snorkel day cruises from Bundaberg. Now, we and three other sailboats had this little paradise entirely to ourselves. We dinghied ashore and hiked the short trails through the cool, green Pisonia trees. Another day we ambled around the cay via the beach, no footprints but ours in sight. Yes! This is why we do it! we exulted, basking in the pristine scenery. Days like this make you want to sing out loud.

The narrow, dark blue channel indicated by an arrow on the northwest side of the reef is the entrance to the lagoon.
Lady Musgrave Island seen from our mooring in the lagoon
Landing on Lady Musgrave. Corroboree is the middle boat on the horizon.

Our next hop took us back to the mainland to a peaceful anchorage at Pancake Creek. There we did a longish hike to the lighthouse on the headland. Painted bright white with a red roof, it would do a postcard proud. Normally, a team of dedicated volunteers give tours, but again, these are not normal times. A small cemetery close by held a handful of graves that we guessed to be family members of past lighthouse keepers. Even today, Pancake Creek is inaccessible by road, and living there a century ago would have required self-reliance and the ability to thrive in isolation for long periods of time. No doubt these tenacious families would have breezed through the social distancing restrictions of Covid-19 without a blink.  

Beautiful Pancake Creek
Bustard Head Lighthouse, Pancake Creek

From Pancake Creek we headed offshore again to a very bouncy night at Hummocky Island, then back inshore to the marina at Rosslyn Bay. Several days of heavy winds were forecast, and we took it as a chance to reprovision at the town of Yeppoon. We also had the good fortune to meet yet another generous Aussie couple, Jeff and Elaine, who took us on a jaunt in their car to see the local sights, and to meet up again with Paul and Chris, our dock neighbors from Bundaberg. One night they invited us and two other couples to celebrate Paul’s birthday, and although the eight of us were probably pushing the envelope on a social gathering, I can now attest to having attended a raucous Aussie party. In answer to my questions, they served up hilarious opinions on and nicknames for the British royal family, positive views on Australia’s mandatory voting system, and a thoughtful consideration of whether Australia had any nationally recognized “heroes” the likes of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Not really. Instead they named people they personally found inspiring: the six Australian soldiers who survived the brutal Sandakan Death March in World War II and Neville Bonner, the first Aboriginal member of the Australian Parliament. Interesting.

The marina at Rosslyn Bay, as seen from the headland. Corroboree is in there somewhere!

Great Keppel Island came next. Only 9 miles from Rosslyn Bay, it’s a popular stop for local boats and cruising sailors alike, and boats were just beginning to return. We took a leisurely walk along the undeveloped beach, and left before dawn the next morning to cover the 45 miles to Pearl Bay. As the sun peeped above the clear horizon, we gasped on witnessing one of the brightest, most intense green flashes we have ever seen. Alas, our camera was not handy, but if you ever hear anyone deny that green flashes are real, send them to me! Later that day, a brown booby made a failed landing on our boom and plopped onto the deck. We allowed it to rest, then shooed it off. We love all the sea birds, but not the gooey souvenirs they leave behind.  

Sunset, Great Keppel Island
Our visitor

We reached Pearl Bay in late afternoon, enjoyed another pretty scene, and bolted the following morning to Island Head Creek, just 7 miles away. Much of this coastline consists of rocky hills and headlands draped in greenish scrub and devoid of human habitation. If you wanted to hide from the law, this would be a good place. What we wanted to hide from was another bout of strong winds, and Island Head Creek is one of the best-sheltered anchorages hereabouts. Getting in the narrow, rock-lined entrance was somewhat stressful. The wind was already up, the tide was running, and the silt in the water made it impossible to see the bottom even when the depth meter was reading a mere 6’. We dodged and darted and finally anchored. Whew! The weather continued to deteriorate, and we spent two blustery, rainy days cooped up but safe. Then onward to the Duke Islands under the most benevolent conditions, a radiant sun, a blissful breeze, until…

Why does life never go perfectly? How can a day start out so well and end so badly? Rats! We were approaching our anchorage and had just lowered our sails when the engine overheated and the alarm whined. Eric checked the most obvious cause—a clog in the water strainer—but it was clear. This was going to require a mechanic, and we reset our course to Mackay, a large commercial port 70 miles away. Without the motor, we could not point Corroboree into the wind to re-raise the mainsail, but we got the jib up. Although it would mean a slow, overnight sail, the weather was fair and the wind a comfortable 10-12 knots. By sticking to the GPS route, we could avoid any islands and obstacles. We contacted the VMR (Volunteer Marine Rescue) by radio and gave them our position, then Eric phoned the Mackay Marina and secured a berth. When we got inside the breakwater, one of their dockhands would meet us in a small boat and shepherd Corroboree in.

Excellent plan! Except some 8 miles from Mackay the following morning, the wind petered out and rain clouds lumbered in. By 1000, a damp Corroboree was drifting in the vicinity of several huge bulk carriers anchored outside the port awaiting entry; we counted no fewer than 21 of these on our way in. Time to swallow our pride. We phoned the VMR and requested a tow. This is the same wonderful organization that was so helpful when Eric’s client Jacob Hendrickson rowed into Cairns last year. They put together a crew, dispatched a boat, and 90 minutes later we were underway. The ride took an hour, and once inside the breakwater, the marina boat took over and guided us into a slip. The next day, a mechanic quickly identified the culprit—a broken raw-water pump impeller, an easy fix. With a new impeller installed, we are set to go…except that the wind is whistling up again.

Under tow by the Mackay VMR
The mechanic displays our broken impeller

Such is the sailing life, and at times, it is decidedly un-fun. I do want to emphasize that we were never in danger during this episode. The weather at the end was uncooperative but not unmanageable. The VMR knew our location, and we had a workable plan. In fact, all our planning along this route so far, especially knowing when and where to take shelter, had served us well. Nevertheless, it was frustrating, maddening, and Eric had spent our hours en route analyzing various costly and complicated scenarios—a broken water pump, a calcified engine heat exchanger? But an impeller is a simple piece and prone to wearing out. Why didn’t we think of this when doing other engine maintenance? Why hadn’t we done a preventative replacement? Why weren’t we carrying spares? You can bet we are now!

Then you go for the bright side, that you are safe, the problem is fixed, and you have contributed some helpful $$$ to the economy of your host country. You have learned a valuable lesson and once again had the opportunity to appreciate the skills of people in other walks of life, such as running rescue services and fixing marine engines. On this occasion, there was an extra glow: While awaiting our tow eight miles out, a small sailboat also heading for the marina saw us bobbing and detoured to make sure we were okay. The family of four aboard, parents with two young children, had heard our radio call to the VMR the previous day. We thanked them and filled them in. When we tied up in the marina a few hours later, they came over to say hello, and soon after that we had a coffee morning in their delightful company.

People are good, life is good. We live to sail another day.